A Moment of Science

What Are The Hidden Costs Of Coal?

An A Moment of Science listener wrote to us: I keep hearing about the hidden costs of fossil fuels like coal. What exactly does it mean? What are hidden costs?

a bucket of coal

Photo: Timitrius (Flickr)

We rely on coal to power many things.

You may have heard about the “hidden costs” of fossil fuels such as coal. But what exactly does that mean? What are these hidden costs?

Coal And Electricity

First, it’s important to understand that coal is by far the most widely used fuel to make electricity in the United States, and in many other places around the world.

And because coal is relatively abundant in the U.S., it’s also fairly cheap. Which is why electricity in the United States is also pretty inexpensive compared to other countries.

What Are Hidden Costs?

Now, these hidden costs can include environmental costs such as air pollution and global warming.

And then they also encompass health costs.

According to a study out of the Harvard Medical School, burning coal costs the U.S. economy between 120 billion and 242 billion dollars a year in health costs. That’s enough to double the average cost of coal fired electricity, if the medical costs were factored into the price of coal.

Premature Deaths

The costs come mainly from premature deaths caused by coal mining, mainly in Appalachia. The study estimates that coal related deaths and health problems cost local Appalachian economies nearly 75 billion dollars per year.

The study also speculates that the health costs of coal could be even higher because coal mining and combustion is known to leak toxic chemicals into groundwater used for drinking and bathing. Depending on the concentration of chemicals in water, coal could be linked to growing rates of cancer in coal mining regions.

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